Dog Bites

They may be our best friends, but dogs are still animals and they can bite. In fact, dogs bite about 4.7 million Americans every year, half of them children between ages 5 and 9. One out of every five of those bites causes an injury that requires medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children are also more likely than adults to be injured by a dog bite.

Although strays or other strange dogs can bite, most of the time people are actually bitten by a dog they know, which could be a friend's dog or even the family pet.

To prevent dog bites:

  • When choosing a dog for a family pet, pick one with a good temperament.
  • Stay away from any dogs you don't know.
  • Never leave young children alone with a dog -- especially an unfamiliar one.
  • Don't try to play with any dog that is eating or feeding her puppies.
  • Whenever you approach a dog, do so slowly, and give the dog the chance to approach you.
  • If a dog becomes aggressive, do not run away or scream. Stay calm, move slowly, and don't make eye contact with the dog.

Dog Bite Treatments

Although you can provide first aid for a dog bite at home, it's very important to see a doctor, especially if an unfamiliar dog bit you, the bite is deep, you can't stop the bleeding, or there are any signs of infection (redness, swelling, warmth, pus). Dog bites can cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics.

To care for a dog bite injury at home:

  • Place a clean towel over the injury to stop any bleeding.
  • Try to keep the injured area elevated.
  • Wash the bite carefully with soap and water.
  • Apply a sterile bandage to the wound.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment to the injury every day to prevent infection.

When you visit the doctor, be prepared to answer a few questions, including:

  • Do you know the owner of the dog?
  • If so, is the dog up to date on all vaccinations, including rabies?
  • Did the bite occur because the dog was provoked, or was the dog unprovoked?
  • What health conditions do you have? People with diabetes, liver disease, illnesses that suppress the immune system, and other health conditions may be at greater risk for a more severe infection.

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Your doctor will examine the injury to see whether the bite was deep enough to damage muscles, tendons, nerves, or bones. Then the doctor will thoroughly clean the bite wound to remove any dirt or bacteria, and may also remove dead tissues from the wound.

Sometimes, sutures are used to close a dog bite wound; however, this practice is controversial. Although suturing the injury can reduce scarring, it also can increase the risk of infection. Whether the injury is closed may depend on its location. For example, dog bites on the face may be sutured to prevent visible scars. Very deep wounds that cause a great deal of damage may require plastic surgery.

Your doctor will also take measures to prevent infection. It's rare for dogs in the U.S. to have rabies, but if the dog's health status is unknown, or the dog tests positive for rabies, you will need to get a rabies vaccine. (Bear in mind that the dog would have to be euthanized and their brain tested for rabies.) The doctor will also make sure that you are up to date on your tetanus shot.

You may need to take antibiotics for seven to 14 days to prevent or treat an infection. The doctor may ask you to come back in one to three days to have the injury rechecked.

If you did not know the dog that bit you, make sure to report the bite to your local animal control office or police.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on September 15, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

FamilyDoctor.org: "Cat and Dog Bites."

CDC web site: "Dog Bites." 

Presutti, R.J. American Family Physician, 2001.

Marx J.A., Hockberger, R.S., Walls. R.M., Adams, J.G., Barsan W.G., eds., Rosen's Emergency Medicine, seventh edition, Philadelphia, Mosby Elsevier; 2009.

Cohen J., Powderly W.G., Berkley S.F., Calandra T., Clumeck N., Finch R.G., Infectious Diseases, second edition, Philadelphia, Mosby Elsevier, 2004.

Taplitz, R.A. Postgraduate Medicine, 2004.

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